Opinion: Can 'disarmament' solve the Manipur crisis?
Security forces recover looted arms and ammunitions in Manipur (file photo).

It’s been more than two months and the tragedy in Manipur continues to unfold. Both the warring groups, the Kuki-Zomi and the Meitei, will have their own versions of how the conflict began. At the moment, though, it appears that the Meitei narrative of the Kuki-Zomi side being illegal immigrants, drug peddlers, and terrorists is not getting much traction. This is not difficult to understand since dehumanising those who are considered enemies has been a classic example of how fascist ideology begins in its quest to purge those who they deem less than themselves. 

The whole state apparatus, security and civilian, can then assist in the goal of bringing about the ‘final solution’. Of course, there will be those from the Meitei who will claim that such a line of reasoning is highly dangerous and irresponsible. What is highly dangerous and irresponsible is how the dehumanisation of the Kuki-Zomi has been allowed to take place, especially over the last few years, which have culminated in this conflict. 

In fact, the modus operandi that has taken place in Manipur is such a classic tactic that has been used in so many places and at different times that it has become too banal to notice. What is different here in this case is the fact that both the warring groups are heavily armed, either for defence or attack, depending on whom you talk to. 

To begin the peace process, there has been a suggestion that the warring groups be disarmed. That is very sensible, but the ground reality is that even if there is complete disarmament, there will be one group that will still have access to a huge arsenal, which could again be used against another group. This group is the Manipur police.

One of the first incidents that shocked the country was that Meitei groups were able to loot thousands of weapons from the Manipur police armoury. The blatant nature of the act was epitomised by the fact that looters were deliberately leaving their Aadhar cards, informing the authorities of their identity. This clearly shows that these individuals were confident that the authorities would not take action against them and would sympathise with their cause. And indeed, later reports showed that the Manipur police explicitly took sides in the conflict.

The testimony of the two women who were gang raped and paraded on May 4, 2023, revealed that it was the Manipur police who handed them over to the mob. Then there’s the case of Hanglalmuan Vaiphei, a 21-year-old undergraduate student from Churachandpur district who was arrested for sharing a social media post against Chief Minister N. Biren Singh. While the police were escorting the accused, they were stopped by a mob that robbed them of their weapon and killed Hanglalmuan. 

The version by the police as reported in the Hindu is that they “escaped in different directions to save themselves”. So, the Manipur police either were unable to stop the violence against the victim or facilitated the violence by handing over the victims for violence to be perpetrated on them. So, while the police themselves did not commit violence, they did nothing to save the victims from violence, making them also parties to the act. This is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that the Manipur police in fact took an active part in the violence against the Kuki-Zomi.

In the Interview done by Karan Thapar with Wilson Lalam Hangshing, the latter claimed that during the siege of Khamenlok, it was the Manipur police who actually led the attack. They had bullet-proof armoured vehicles and trucks, while the Kukis on the hilltops had only a few volunteers who were very lightly armed. Since they knew that they would not be able to face such an assault, the Kukis evacuated the villages and retreated into the forest. The Meitei were able to enter the village and start burning down the houses. 

Delighted at their easy victory, the Meitei started getting drunk and engaging in revelry. However, late at night, the Kuki volunteers came out of the jungle and started attacking the Meitei, some of whom were drinking inside the church, using their guns and machetes. In the process, around 200 Meitei were killed, with only one death and a few injuries on the Kuki side. 

The next day, it is claimed, the Manipur Chief Minister himself came to collect the bodies. How true the account is can be debated since Wilson is a Kuki, and there is every chance that he is exaggerating or lying about some details like the role of Manipur police to make them look bad. But there are other sources that have corroborated the role of Manipur police in actively taking part in the voice.

In an interview with The News Minute, Gresshma Kuthar, an independent reporter who has written about the Manipur violence for Aljazeera among other publications, also confirms the role of the Manipur police in the violence. According to Gresshma, indiscriminate firing would regularly take place from the valley towards the hills—around 700–800 rounds in a single incident. The amount of ammunition used was counted by the Central Security Forces. She also stated that there were clear attempts by the Meitei to breach the buffer zones and attack the Kuki positions. To assist them, the Manipur police would fire at the central forces that have put themselves between the Meitei and the Kuki. Gresshma’s interview, thus, clearly brings out the partisan role that the Manipur police have played in the conflict.

Both these interviews and the incidents discussed above clearly show that the Manipur police are complicit in the violence that is happening in Manipur. So, even if there’s complete disarmament of the civilians, there will still be one group who took part in the violence and will have access to a huge amount of weapons. As it happened in the past, they (the Manipur police) could either ‘gift’ the weapons or not make an effort to stop them from falling into the hands of Meitei belligerents, who will again try to attack the Kuki-Zomi. In such a situation, if the latter agrees to the disarmament, it will be akin to them signing their own death sentence.

A way out of this while still working towards disarmament is to disband or suspend the Manipur police and let law and order be handled by central forces. Until an inquiry is complete and those from the Manipur police who had participated either directly or indirectly in the violence are identified and punished, the Meitei police personnel cannot be trusted to have access to weapons. This is the only way that the Kuki-Zomi can be made to feel confident that they will be safe from reprisals by the Meitei, who are numerically superior and who control the State Government and all its resources. 

Later on, when the Manipur police are reinstated, if the state is not divided, there should be a proposal to ensure that the force is not numerically dominated by a single community, i.e., the force should be 30% Meitei, 30% Kuki-Zomi, 30% Naga, and 10% others.

A problem with disarming or disbanding the Manipur Police and taking over the administration of law and order by the central forces is that they will be looked upon by the Meitei as an occupying force. And in case the handover of control back to the State police is delayed, feelings of animosity will continue to grow, which could lead to renewed large-scale insurgency against the Indian nation-state. 

In fact, the Meitei insurgents have taken part in the violence, as found in the case when the Meira Paibis forced the Indian security forces to release 12 militants, which included self-styled “Lt Col” Moirangthem Tamba alias Uttam of the banned Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup (KYKL), a wanted militant identified as the mastermind of the 2015 Chandel ambush in which 18 soldiers of the Dogra Regiments were killed. There is already a lot of distrust of the central forces among the Meitei, but the Manipur police, as they are right now, cannot be counted on to play a neutral role in this conflict. So, the situation could get worse if not properly handled.

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Editor-in-Chief, eastmojo.com

In my opinion, the political status quo will not bring about lasting peace. The distrust between the communities is too deep, and especially that of the Kuki-Zomi towards the state apparatus, whether civilian or security, is genuine, as has been brought out by the events that transpired. But as a Khasi from Meghalaya, it is not for me to demand a separate administration for the Kuki-Zomi, which will be resisted by the Meitei. But whatever solution might be, it has to create a sense of security, and the state machinery, as it exists right now, cannot bring that about. That has to change. 

(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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